Watching the End of the World

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Chapter One

The jet lurched and started to lose altitude. Someone screamed. Nate heard someone saying “Ohshit ohshit ohshit” over and over again. The ground was coming up fast. The pilot was wrong. They didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Tanzania.

Then, blessed miracle, the engines came back on and the jet leveled out. Some of the weight on Nate’s heart eased and he could breathe again.

The flight attendant came through the cabin handing out inflatable life jackets. “Put these on. We may have to land in the water.” Caleb was closest to the exit and she showed him the emergency exit bar and the button to deploy the inflatable slide. Nate thought of all the times he’d sat through the flight attendant lectures on what to do in the event of a crash and paid no attention.

He found himself thinking about his mother. How long had it been since he’d talked to her? They’d never been close. She was always too engrossed in her art to pay much attention to the needs of a child. He’d left as soon as he could and never looked back, telling himself it didn’t matter anyway, that he preferred to be free of all the entanglements and drama that so many of his friends dealt with when it came to their families. Now he wondered if it had all been a mistake.

The engines cut out again. Someone was sobbing loudly. Santiago was cursing in Spanish. Nate knew he was hyperventilating but he couldn’t seem to help himself. The ground got closer. They flashed over a river. The jet began banking right as the pilot steered it toward the ocean.

The engines came back on and Nate nearly cried with relief. The plane gained precious altitude.

Then he heard someone yelling. “Over there! I see something! I think it’s a runway!” Everyone tried to look. Nate was fumbling with his seat belt when the flight attendant came on the intercom.

“Remain in your seats! Please!”

The jet banked to the left. A ragged cheer went up from the passengers. Nate tried to swallow but his mouth was too dry. He heard a woman praying in a language he didn’t recognize and looked over to see Omisha, her hands clasped before her, tears streaming down her face.

The jet bucked as the engines cut out again. They sputtered once and went dead for good. The jet began to dive.

Nate looked out his window, hoping they were over the airfield. The ground was getting very close, very fast, the trees flashing by in a blur. He gripped the armrests, trying to prepare himself for the impact. Would he die immediately, a sudden burst of pain and then nothing? Or would he lie broken and burned in the jungle and scream out his last moments?

At the end, the cabin became strangely quiet, the screams and sobbing and praying seeming to pause. It was so quiet Nate could hear the landing gear going down.

Thumping and cracking from below as they began to strike the tops of the tallest trees. Any second now. Nate braced himself. How had he ended up here, on a jet falling out of the sky? It was hard to believe that less than twenty-four hours ago the future had seemed so full of possibility…

Chapter Two

 The Day Before

Nate Devereaux sat in a VIP lounge at Los Angeles International Airport and wondered if he’d killed his acting career before it ever really got started. He was a graduate of Julliard, a gifted actor with a promising future. He’d played Hamlet to a sold-out theater for two full weeks. Standing ovations every night. Granted, it was in Milwaukee – not exactly Broadway – but at least it was theater. He was a real actor, not some wannabe-Kardashian willing to do anything to get his five minutes in the public eye.

So what was he doing here, about to board a jet to Madagascar to spend the next two months competing in a show called Reality Island? Was he really this desperate? But he knew the answer to that. Two years in Los Angeles without a single real acting job did terrible things to a person’s ego.

He looked around the lounge and groaned inwardly. Judging by what he saw here, this was going to be the cheesiest reality show ever. The others waiting with him were the shallowest, most stereotypical reality show contestants ever, straight out of central casting. If the show was meant as a satire, they’d be perfect.

One of the guys – a tall, blonde man with rippling muscles highlighted by the tank top he was wearing – was flexing his bicep for two of the female contestants.

Even worse, the women were eating it up. The tall, bleached-blonde with the clearly-fake boobs and the too-tight miniskirt actually clapped her hands and laughed when he did it. The woman on the other side of the blonde guy – a beautiful African-American woman with a faint resemblance to Beyoncé – had one hand on his shoulder.

All three were standing at the lounge’s tiny bar, drinking complimentary shots of tequila, never mind that it was nine in the morning.

On the other side of the Beyoncé lookalike was a brooding Latino guy wearing sharp-toed cowboy boots worked with silver, tight black jeans and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt. He was drinking a beer and staring at her ass.

Nate sank back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. The best he could hope for now was that the show would quietly sink into the seething morass of American pop culture and disappear forever. Which he figured it had a pretty good chance of doing.

The irony of it all was that he hadn’t even wanted to go to the audition. It was his roommate, Trevor, who dragged him along. Trevor was also an aspiring actor and not a bad one either. He at least took the craft seriously, which was more than could be said of a lot of those who dreamed of acting. The day Trevor came home and announced he was trying out for a reality TV show Nate mocked him.

“Reality TV is a joke,” Nate said dismissively. “The lowest form of entertainment there is. Marx had it wrong. Reality TV is the true opiate of the masses.”

“You won’t get an argument from me on that,” Trevor said, taking an apple out of the fruit bowl on the counter and starting to cut it into quarters.

“Then why are you trying out for it?”

“The real question, Nate,” Trevor said, taking a bite, “is why you aren’t.”

“Maybe because I’m a real actor,” Nate replied.

Trevor shook his head in disbelief. “I’m sorry, but how much acting do you get to do at your day job?” Nate worked in retail at a clothing store.

“All in good time,” Nate said, feeling a little heat rise in his voice. “I’ve only been here two years.”

“Yeah. Two years. Then it’s three. Five. How many years pass while you wait for your break? Take a chance, Nate. You never know where it will lead.”

“But it’s reality TV, not acting.”

“It’s not?” Trevor started on another piece of apple.

“I’ve watched them. Trust me, it’s not acting.”

“Then make it acting. Look, I know you’re not one of those airheads like you see on the reality shows, but that doesn’t mean you can’t act like one. Look at it as an opportunity to play a role. You never know who might be watching. On top of that, there’s a million bucks waiting for the winner. Who knows? It could be you.”

And so Nate reluctantly agreed to go with Trevor the next day to the audition. Somehow, one thing led to another and here he was. Sometimes the universe had a perverse sense of humor.

The door to the lounge opened and an attractive brown-haired woman walked in. She was wearing an exercise top and a pair of those black, stretchy, exercise pants – Nate thought they were called solows – that were so popular these days. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Sunglasses covered most of her face, but what Nate could see he liked. He gave her a smile. Stone-faced, she looked right through him and went and sat down across the room. From her bag she took a book and started reading it.

Great, Nate thought. This was just getting better and better.

A moment later another woman came in. She looked to be Indian, with long, lustrous black hair and friendly eyes. She was wearing a long, green dress and heels. She paused just inside the door as if unsure if she was in the right place.

“If you’re looking for the cast of Reality Island,” Nate said, “this is it.”

“Yes, I am. Thank you.” She had a very elegant, cultured British accent. Nate sat up a little in his seat. Maybe this thing wouldn’t be a total loss. She sat down two seats away, but she didn’t lounge in the seat. She sat very straight and proper, her legs crossed, her hands folded on her knees.

The woman who came in after her had shoulder length, dark hair and fairly dark skin, as if she was from the Middle East or the Mediterranean area somewhere. She was wearing black jeans, a black top and aviator sunglasses which she took off as she surveyed the room. Her eyes landed on Nate, paused, then moved on. He had the feeling he’d just been measured up and classified as “not a threat.” There were pronounced muscles in her arms and she moved like an athlete or a fighter. Nate decided he did not want to get on her bad side.

A waiter came by then and asked Nate if he wanted something to drink. He ordered a club soda. The waiter moved on and the door opened again.

The guy who came in next was slightly built and a little bit shorter than Nate, who was only five-ten on a good day. He had dark hair cut short and bristly and just a touch of a mustache on his lip. He, too, paused just inside the door to look around. But where the Indian woman with the British accent seemed nervous and unsure, he seemed calm and confident. He saw Nate looking at him and nodded, then went and sat down. He seemed very measured and deliberate in his actions.

Behind him came the last member of the cast, Asian, dark-haired, a big smile on his face. He came over and sat down by Nate, then stuck out his hand.

“Hi, I’m Tony Chang. Who are you?”

Nate shook his hand. “Nate Devereaux.”

Tony looked around the room and gave a low whistle. “Wow,” he said quietly, making sure his voice was soft enough that only Nate heard. “What is this, a gathering of the most beautiful people in the world? I think I just fell in love with every woman in here and half of the men.” He shook his head. “Someone made a terrible mistake when they picked me for this. You know, I thought the woman who interviewed me looked nearsighted. Now I know she was.”

“You’re overreacting,” Nate said. “This is just a random group of average, everyday Americans. And by average and everyday, I mean the perfect mix of cosmetic surgery and hitting the genetic lottery. The American public wants their TV real, but they don’t want it too real.”

“Seriously,” Tony said, sounding as if he hadn’t heard Nate at all. “These women are unbelievable. Do you think any of them will let me carry their luggage or lick their shoes or something?”

Nate chuckled. He liked Tony already. It was good to know at least one person on the show wasn’t a shallow narcissist. “So, what brings you here?”

“The money,” Tony deadpanned, breaking away from his ogling to look at Nate. “Don’t let my wide-eyed yokel act fool you. That million dollars is as good as mine.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself.”

“I am,” Tony said seriously. Then he laughed. “I’m just messing with you. Look at them and then look at me. I’m skinny and I’m Chinese. Who’s going to vote for me? I’m just hoping to have some fun. I’m so broke my idea of a vacation is drinking a Corona and looking at pictures of beaches on my laptop. Once they said we’d be filming on a tropical island, I said sign me up.”

Nate couldn’t help but contrast Tony’s attitude with his own. Maybe he needed to lighten up a little bit and try to enjoy this thing.

“Still,” Tony mused. “I could win. There’s always the chance that no one will take me seriously, and while the rest of you are fighting to the death I’ll sneak across the finish line first.”

“Do you even know what a reality show is?”

“Some sort of cross between Death Race 2000 and Family Feud?”

Nate laughed. “Spot on. But you’ve made one fatal mistake. You told me your strategy. Now I’m going to make sure you go down first.”

“Are you sure of that?” Tony shrugged and in a bad Italian accent said, “Maybe you will suffer an unfortunate accident. Maybe a skinny ninja will climb through your window one night while you’re asleep.”

“Aren’t ninjas Japanese?”

“So now you’re an expert on my heritage?” Tony said with mock outrage. “Well, I’ve got news for you. There could be Chinese ninjas. Maybe they’re just so good no one ever caught one.”

The door opened again and a short, round man in his fifties came in. He had glasses and a little circle of hair surrounding the bald dome of his head and his face was shiny with sweat, though the airport was cool. The suit he was wearing looked expensive, but somehow he managed to make it look shabby. He set his briefcase down, beamed at the room in general and clapped his pudgy hands twice.

“Hello, everybody! So good to see you all here today! For those of you who don’t remember, I’m Arnold Palmer—call me Arnie—executive producer of Reality Island. And, in case you’re wondering, I’m not that Arnold Palmer. I’m the talented one.” He winked and laughed at his own joke. The blonde muscular guy at the bar whispered something to the two women flanking him and all three laughed. A bit of a frown crossed Arnie’s face, but it disappeared quickly.

“Your private jet will be ready shortly.” He stressed the word private and there was an appreciative murmur in the room. “Very soon you will be whisked away to begin the adventure of a lifetime. Who will be the last man, or woman, standing? Who will claim the big prize money? Only time will tell.” He picked up the briefcase and opened it. “Before you go though, there’s just one little detail to attend to.” He took out a thick stack of folders and then proceeded to hand out one to each of the contestants. Inside was some kind of legal document, about sixty to seventy-five pages long.

“What is this?” the woman in the solows asked, frowning.

“It’s Jenna, isn’t it?” the man asked. She nodded and he fluttered his hands. “Just a little matter of a waiver and some details about the show, what happens if you get voted off early, et cetera. Nothing to worry about.”

“But I already signed one of these.”

“I know. That’s what I told them too. The lawyers, I mean. But they said this is essentially the same. You still get paid the same, which is the important part.”

“Then what changed?” She was looking at the contract suspiciously.

“You know, they told me but it was all a lot of legal mumbo jumbo and it didn’t make much sense to me. There’s a number on there if you want to call them and ask them.”

The ones at the bar were already signing theirs and so was the Middle Eastern-looking woman.

“I think I want my agent to look at this before I sign it,” Jenna said.

“And you have every right to do so. However, I have to inform you that we are on a tight schedule today. The investors want us to start filming tomorrow.” He had produced a tissue and was wiping his forehead with it. “They wanted me to make it very clear that there will be no renegotiation on the contracts. They are take it or leave it. They said if you don’t like the terms that I’m to call one of our alternate contestants.” He rummaged around in his briefcase and pulled out a single sheet of paper, pushing his glasses up and peering at it. “I have no doubt we will be able to fill your slot. There were quite a lot of very enthusiastic young actresses during the screening process.”

Jenna hesitated, staring at her contract. Tony started signing his. “Aren’t you worried about what it says?” Nate asked him.

“Not really. Like he said, it’s nonnegotiable. It’s either this or back to my data entry job and I’ve got to tell you, I really hate data entry.”

Last chance to back out, Nate thought. But he took the pen and signed his as well. The dice were cast now.

In a couple of minutes all of them had signed – even Jenna, though she didn’t look too happy about it – and Arnie was gathering the contracts up and tucking them away. He started babbling on about something else then, but Nate wasn’t listening. His attention had been caught by the flat screen mounted on the wall. The sound was off, but the caption said something about a terrorist attack in Chicago. TSA guards were surrounding a man with a thick, bushy, black beard and dark glasses. They took his briefcase away and opened it. Inside were some glass vials.

“What the hell?” Nate said, elbowing Tony and pointing.

“What is it? What’s happening?”

“Some kind of terrorist attack.” Nate stood up. “I’m going to turn the sound up. I want to hear this.”

But just then the door opened again and a young woman in a flight attendant’s uniform came in. “Your jet is ready, Mr. Palmer.”

“Did everyone hear that?” Arnie crowed. “Your jet’s ready and this lovely young woman just called me Mr. Palmer. Oh, I love her already.”

The crew at the bar tossed their drinks back as everyone got up, gathered their belongings – only small carry-on bags; they’d been told not to bring more, that everything would be provided on the island – and followed Arnie and the flight attendant through the airport.

Chapter Three

A shuttle carried them out to a gleaming, expensive-looking jet. There were exclamations and a couple of high fives were exchanged. Nate had to admit that he was excited about the idea of riding on a private jet. He’d never even been this close to one before.

A male flight attendant was standing at the top of the stairs as they got off the shuttle and he smiled and waved to them. Arnie stopped at the bottom of the stairs.

“Sadly, this is as far as poor Arnie gets to go. I do envy you all. I wish I was flying away to an exotic locale.”

For the most part they ignored him, hurrying past him, eager to see the inside of the jet. They were not disappointed. The interior was all white. Plush, reclining leather seats, glass tables, couches, flat screens on the walls and deep carpeting.

“Swank!” the blonde guy said when he saw it. “A fella could get used to this.” He had an Australian accent. He plopped down in one of the seats and spun around. “What more do you want?” The blonde woman took the seat closest to him, just getting there ahead of the other woman he’d been drinking with at the bar. The female flight attendant came walking by and he grabbed her hand, pulling her close. He peered at her name tag. “Kelly. I’m Caleb. A pleasure to meet you, lass. How’s a man get a drink around here?”

She pulled her hand away and gave him a professional smile. “He asks. We have a fully stocked bar. Once we’re in the air I’ll be happy to bring you whatever you like.”

“Lovely,” Caleb said. “But that sounds far away. How about a little something right now?”

“Sorry, Caleb. Can’t have you spilling everywhere during takeoff.”

“I’ll finish it fast, I promise.”

She patted his shoulder. “I’m sure you would.”

Nate took a seat in the back, near the galley, and buckled himself in. He got his phone out, wanting to find out more about the attempted terrorist attack before they took off. Before he could get very far the pilot’s voice came over the intercom.

“This is your pilot, Captain Carl Rogers. Welcome aboard. We are cleared to take off just as soon as everyone gets buckled in. Please turn off all electronic devices at this time.” Reluctantly, Nate turned his phone off. Each seat had its own tablet computer. Probably he could get on the Internet once they were in the air. He sat back and closed his eyes. It was a very comfortable seat. Not at all like being crammed into coach.

He was sitting there with his eyes closed, when he heard the two flight attendants talking in low voices in the galley.

“Are they grounding flights?”

“That’s what I heard. LAX will be shut within an hour. That’s why they’re rushing us like this. They want to get this plane in the air before it happens.”

“How bad is it?”

“I don’t know. They said it’s contained at O’Hare and only a half dozen people are sick, but that’s one of the busiest airports in the world. It could have spread anywhere already.”

Nate sat up, alarmed. “What’s that?” he asked loudly.

Kelly broke off and turned around. “Can I help you, sir?”

“I want to know more about the terrorist attack in Chicago,” Nate said. “What happened? How bad is it?”

“It’s all under control,” she said. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

“There’s been a terrorist attack?” Jenna said. She was in a seat across the aisle from Nate. Others broke off from what they were doing to listen.

“It was an attempted attack.”

“You said half a dozen people are sick,” Nate said.

“The authorities caught the man responsible. It’s been contained.”

Nate was watching the male flight attendant while Kelly spoke. From the look on his face it was worse than Kelly was letting on. He felt a twinge of fear.

“Terrorist attack?” the blonde woman said, just hearing about it. “Where? Is it a bomb?”

“No,” Kelly said, walking through the cabin. “There was no bomb, just one man with some anthrax or something. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Then why are you keeping it a secret?” the blonde woman asked.

“We’re not keeping it a secret. We just didn’t want to alarm anyone. Once we’re in the air you can watch CNN on your tablet. You’ll have all the details then. We’re just trying to get in the air before someone decides to shut this airport down and we’re all stuck here on the tarmac. For who knows how long. Nobody wants that, do they?” There was a chorus of no’s. Everybody had heard horror stories of passengers stuck on planes on the runway for hours and hours. “Good,” she said, moving back to the galley. “Then we can get in the air and get out of here.”

Chapter Four

In just a few minutes they were airborne, the jet banked and they flew east. Kelly and the male flight attendant came around a few minutes later with trays of champagne. The Indian woman shook her head when the champagne was offered. “Oh no, it’s much too early,” she said.

“Only a bit of bubbly,” Caleb said, swiveling his chair to face her. “What’s the harm?” When she still refused he said, “Give me hers then. We can’t have good wine going to waste now.”

Nate turned on the tablet by his seat and tapped the Internet icon. A message popped up saying the network wasn’t available. He hit the back button and tried again. Same result. To Tony he said, “Try your Internet. Mine’s not working.”

Tony touched the screen a couple of times then shook his head. “Mine’s not working either.”

Nate waved the male flight attendant over. His name tag said Adam. “What’s going on with the Internet? I can’t get on.”

“I’ll look into it.” He came back a few minutes later. “I’m sorry, sir. I tried resetting it, but it didn’t help. There’s nothing else I can do. You should be able to access the video library though. There are thousands of movies and TV shows to choose from.”

“I want to learn more about the terrorist attack.”

“I’ll talk to the captain and see what he can find out.”

“You need to relax, mate,” Caleb said, holding up his glass of champagne. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Nate said. He took a sip of his champagne. He didn’t know much about champagne, but it tasted like the good stuff.

“What do you know about this show? Is it going to be like Survivor or something, where we break into teams and try not to get voted off the island?” Tony asked him.

“Arnie was pretty vague when I asked him.”

“Is that normal?”

Nate shrugged. “I’ve got no idea what is normal and what isn’t.”

Jenna spoke up. “I tried to get Arnie to tell me more about the show but he acted very mysterious about it. All he would say was that it wasn’t quite like any reality show ever done, and the director wanted to keep the details secret until we got there. Something about not spoiling the dramatic intensity of the show.”

“Dramatic intensity,” Nate said with a snort. “Give me a break.”

Jenna turned her gaze on him. “You don’t think reality TV has dramatic intensity?”

“No. I don’t. It’s all fake. It’s manufactured drama.”

“How is that different from a movie? Isn’t that also manufactured drama?”

“Yes, but…” Others were listening in now and Nate began to wish he’d kept his mouth shut. He had a feeling he’d stepped into a trap and it would only get tighter the more he wriggled. “A movie’s different. It’s not trying to pass itself off as real.”

“And reality shows do?”

“Exactly. They try to make us believe that the drama, the interactions between characters, is all real.”

“But it’s not.”

“No. The actors on those shows know they’re on camera the entire time. I’m not saying they don’t actually get into real fights, but everything they do is based around the knowledge that the camera is always watching. No matter how convincing they might be, it’s still all fake.”

“You don’t think that after enough time that the people on those shows start to forget the cameras are there? That they become used to their presence to the point where their true feelings come out?”

Nate hesitated. He hadn’t thought about that. “I suppose it’s possible. I’ll still take a well-written and well-acted play or movie any day over reality TV.”

“Why?” She had piercing green eyes that seemed to pin Nate into place.

Nate looked to Tony for help. Tony held up his hands as if to say, you got yourself into this. “Great drama, like great literature, gives us a window into the human condition,” Nate said. Great. Now he sounded like his high school English teacher.

“So, watching a quality movie gives us a chance to see how people react to their lives and the other people around them?”

“Yeah. Pretty much.” The edge of the cliff felt closer.

“Doesn’t reality TV do the same thing? Isn’t it popular for exactly the same reason, because it gives the audience a chance to see how real people interact?”

“But, it’s not the same,” Nate spluttered. People were grinning. He definitely should have just kept his mouth shut.

“No, it’s not. One is only people pretending to react to things. The other is people actually reacting to things.” She gave him a triumphant smile.

“Okay,” Nate said weakly. “I surrender.” Jenna opened her bag and took out a magazine and started flipping through it.

“I guess now you know not to tangle with her,” Tony said quietly, making sure Jenna couldn’t hear.

“No shit. Are my wounds still bleeding?”

Tony looked him over. “Just a couple of them. One question.”

Nate groaned. “Not you too.”

“Don’t be scared. I just wanted to know why you’re here if you have such a low opinion of reality shows.”

“My roommate talked me into it?”

“That’s a lame excuse.”

“I’m tired of selling clothes?”

“Much better. It’s not really so bad, being on a reality show. Is it?” Tony asked.

“You have no idea. My parents weren’t happy when I chose acting to begin with.”

“Ah. They wanted you to be something serious. Like a doctor. Or an accountant, maybe?” Tony said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Oh, god no. They would have disowned me for sure.”

“Clearly your family is nothing like mine,” Tony said. “I had the grades for med school and chose lowly accounting, which I didn’t finish. That didn’t make me too popular.”

“My parents are artists. Mom’s a painter. She does some sculpting too. Dad’s a – well, he died a few years ago – but he was a violinist with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Both successful. Both expected me to follow them into the arts.”

“Isn’t acting an art?”

“Bingo! That’s just what I said. About two hundred times. But not in their book. Acting’s low brow. Entertainment for the masses. They saved their money and pulled every string they could to get me into Julliard in New York City and then I went and chose theater.”

Tony gave a low whistle. “I’ve heard of Julliard. They don’t take just anybody.”

“Anyway, it’s bad enough I went into acting. When my focus was on theater they could live with that. When I told them I wanted to go to LA and get into movies I thought they’d have a stroke. Now here I am. TV. And the lowest form of TV too. Dad’s rolling over in his grave right now.”

“What did your mom say when you told her you landed this job?”

Nate snorted. “I never told her. It’s likely she’ll never know.”

“I don’t believe that. What mother wouldn’t know if her son was on a TV show?”

Nate gave a dry laugh. “You clearly don’t know my mother. She never watches TV. That is entertainment for the proletarian masses. Nor do either of the two friends she has. She doesn’t subscribe to any newspapers or magazines. She has a computer hooked up to the Internet, but it’s about a hundred years old and she only uses it for email and then only grudgingly. She lives in her own little world, creating, painting, drinking, of course, like any good artist. She probably couldn’t even tell you who’s president.”

“No brothers or sisters to tell her?”

“Only child.”

“An uncle? Cousin?”

“The only other family I know of is an uncle, my dad’s brother. He lives in Idaho in a cabin in the woods. According to my dad, he makes the Unabomber look like a Democrat. I’ve never met him.”

“Grandparents?”

“All dead. My mom’s in her late sixties. My parents had me late.”

Tony considered this for a moment, then said, “Your family and mine are just about complete opposites of each other. I’ve got two brothers and two sisters, seven – no, eight – aunts and uncles. Four grandparents, all in China by the way. And more cousins, nieces and nephews than I can count. Our house was always full of family. Half of them worked in my dad’s store in Kansas. I don’t think I could fart without someone in my family noticing and telling everyone else.”

The door to the cockpit opened and the pilot came out. He was tall, his curly hair graying at the temples, with the ramrod posture that spoke of time in the military. “Hi, everyone. I’m Carl Stubing, your captain. I’ve been told our Internet is down and some of you would like an update on the attempted terrorist attack.”

Jenna put her magazine down. Nate, Tony and a couple of the others looked up. The rest continued with what they were doing, which seemed to consist primarily of drinking and flirting.

“I made some calls and here’s what I learned. There was an attempted terrorist attack this morning at Chicago O’Hare. A man attempted to board a plane carrying vials of an unknown biological agent. But he was apprehended before he had the opportunity to release the vials. The authorities have taken two known accomplices of his into custody. There was consideration given to closing our nation’s airports by the Department of Homeland Security after this, but they determined that there are no other attempts happening. This is an isolated group.” Carl gave them a reassuring smile. “I hope that eases your minds a little.”

“But the flight attendant said some people were sick,” Nate said.

“DHS is saying it was a case of food poisoning at one of the airport restaurants. Nothing to do with the terrorists.” He went back into the cockpit.

“Well, that makes me feel better,” Nate said.

“At least we know the world’s not ending,” Tony replied.

Chapter Five

Nate was trying to take a nap when all the wall screens on the jet came on, showing Arnie sitting at a table.  He gave them a big smile and wiped his glistening forehead with a tissue. “Hello again!” he cried heartily. “I hope you’re finding the jet to your liking. The production company wanted to send you on a commercial flight but I put my foot down.” He mimed stomping one foot, which only made him look foolish when he hit his knee on the underside of the table, nearly tipping over the glass of water at his elbow. His smile never faltered though. If anything it grew brighter.

“Now, I’m sure you all have lots of questions. No doubt you’re dying to know more about the nuts and bolts of Reality Island, but that’s not why I’ve called.” There was an audible groan from a couple of the contestants. Arnie shook his finger at them. “I can see and hear you, you know. You’re all already on camera.” Nate looked around. Sure enough, there were at least four cameras that he could see. “Patience, as they say, is a virtue, though I can’t say it’s ever gotten me anywhere.” He chuckled at his little joke. His smile turned down a few watts. “I called to say I want you all to spend the next hour or so in a little meet-and-greet. I realize some of you have already started getting acquainted – ” he raised one eyebrow and gave a knowing leer “ – but I want to make sure you all get to know something about each other before we start filming in earnest tomorrow.”

“Is this one of those first-day-of-class things?” Tony said. “That everyone hates?”

“Exactly!” Arnie cried, clapping his pudgy hands together. “Here’s how it’s going to go: You’re going to partner up, boy-girl, boy-girl. You’re going to get a few minutes to talk to each other. During that time you’re going to learn your partner’s name and a few details about them, like where they’re from, something about their childhood, their favorite hobby. Also, you need to find out one secret. When the time is up, each of you is going to introduce your partner and share what you learned about him or her with everyone else. Don’t worry about whether you’ll be able to remember it all; Kelly and Adam will be coming around with paper and pens for each of you.”

“A secret?” someone groaned. “What kind of secret?”

“Whatever you choose,” Arnie replied, winking. “It’s up to you. I will tell you this though: your viewers will be watching and they will be voting. You don’t want to let them down, do you? Pair up now so we can get started.”

Nate was hoping to pair up with the Indian woman but Tony got to her before he did. Jenna paired up with the quiet guy. Caleb chose the blonde as his partner and they celebrated their partnership by clinking beers together. The Latino man paired up with the African American woman. That left Nate with the woman in the aviator sunglasses and the no-nonsense manner.

They were all settling into their places, conversations just starting, when Arnie suddenly interrupted. Someone off-camera had handed him a sheet of paper and his smile faded as he read it. “Something’s come up so I’m going to have to let you do this on your own. Don’t worry. Kelly will keep time and let you know when to share what you’ve learned.” The screens went dark.

“Strange guy,” Nate remarked to his partner.

“TV is full of strange people,” she replied. “Maybe it’s a way to keep them all in one place and occupied so we don’t have to pay to institutionalize them.”

“Personal experience?” Nate asked her.

She shook her head. “Not me. I’m just a simple soldier. Ex-soldier,” she amended. She leaned over and extended her hand. “Akila Mourad.”

“Nate Devereaux.” She had a strong grip. The muscles stood out on her arms when they shook and Nate had a feeling this woman could hurt him if she chose to. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Then they sat back in their chairs and Nate took up the clipboard Kelly had handed him. “So you were in the military? Which branch?”

“The army. Corporal Mourad. Two tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.”

Now Nate was sure she could hurt him if she chose. He decided he wanted this woman on his side, whatever kind of competition this turned out to be. He had a feeling she could carry him to the finish line. She seemed supremely capable.

“So, Mourad. That’s an unusual last name. Where did it come from?”

“It’s Egyptian. So’s Akila. It means ‘intelligent.’ You can use that as my secret.”

“Not very juicy. I think Arnie was hoping for juicy.”

“Well, too bad for Arnie.”

“Here’s to that,” Nate said, leaning forward and putting out his fist for a bump. At first she just stared at his fist, hanging there, and he found himself feeling very silly, like a twelve-year-old trying to impress the big kids and failing miserably, but then she leaned forward and gave him a gentle bump. Nate swallowed. “Were you born in Egypt?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never been there. The closest I made it was Iraq. I was born in Eugene, Oregon. My father was a visiting professor there when he met my mother.”

“Your mother was a student?”

“This feels like another secret. I only have to give one.”

Nate held up the clipboard. “Just following orders, ma’am.”

She responded with the faintest smile. He found he liked her smile. “She was Brazilian.” Nate caught the past tense and wondered what had happened to her mother. “She was attending the University of Oregon on a dance scholarship and met my father in a political science class.” She shook her head. “I can’t even imagine what those two ever saw in each other. Complete opposites. My father is rigid, dictatorial, real old-school. My mother was a free spirit, full of fire and life. The affair didn’t last long, but long enough to produce me. When my father found out my mother was pregnant with me he insisted that they marry. She insisted they not, though it went against her Catholic beliefs. Then he pulled some typical male macho bullshit on her and she pulled a little capoeira on him.”

“What’s capoeira?”

“A Brazilian martial art. It’s a mix of dance, acrobatics and music. Very Brazilian. Very effective.”

“Yet you ended up with his last name?”

Akila shrugged. “As I said, she was very traditional Catholic.”

“Favorite hobby?”

“I don’t have any hobbies.”

“Everyone has a hobby.”

“Killing people.”

Nate looked up from his clipboard, sure she must be joking. She was staring at him expressionlessly. “Okay. Killing people it is.”

She put her clipboard down. “I think we’re done here.”

“Aren’t you supposed to ask me questions?”

“I already know everything I need to. I heard you talking to Tony. You grew up in North Carolina. Your dad was a violinist. Your mom’s an artist. You went to Juliet.”

“Julliard. I went to Julliard.”

“What’s that? Some kind of acting school?”

“Yeah. You could say that. Or you could say that it is the premier school for dance, drama and music.”

“Which explains why you’re so down on reality shows.”

“At Julliard it’s not called acting. It’s called drama. Los Angeles is a profanity there. To quote: ‘Theater is a calling, an art, a craft, a political act.’ Only soulless sellouts go to LA. Oh, if I landed in a serious movie like A Beautiful Mind I think I could be forgiven. But TV? And, worst of all, reality TV? I’d be thought better of if I became an insurance salesman.”

“My cousin sells insurance. He’s done well.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m doing that a lot today.”

“I didn’t say you offended me. You think I would have survived in the military as a woman if I was offended easily?”

“Probably not. How does a soldier end up in reality TV anyway?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Not really.” She faded off, seemed to be looking at something in the distance only she could see. “I’ve been at loose ends since I left the Army. I don’t know what to do with myself. The Army’s all I know. When I saw the ad, I figured, what do I have to lose? How many movies have some tough Hispanic chick in a head band and cut-off sleeves? You saw Aliens? I can be that chick.”

“But you’re only half Hispanic.”

“Close enough. It’s not like anyone will know anyway. People have been calling me a Mexican my entire life. I don’t even bother to correct them anymore. One more thing: what’s your secret?” She gestured at the camera on the wall nearby. “What are you giving up for the camera?”

Nate was ready for this. He knew enough about reality shows to know they thrived on secrets. “I had sex with one of my mom’s friends – one of her much younger friends – when I was in high school.”

“That’s what you’re going with?”

“What? It’s the truth. Her name was Mrs. Heath. She was British.” Which was total rubbish. He’d never spoken more than five words at once to either of his mother’s friends and the thought of having sex with them wasn’t a pleasant one.

Akila fixed him with a level stare long enough that he began to shift in his seat. Finally she shrugged and said, “Okay. It doesn’t matter to me either way.”

A few minutes later Kelly announced that it was time to share what they had learned about each other. Nate volunteered to go first. The story about Akila’s mother thumping her father with capoeira earned a few laughs. Nate had to admit it was a great story, better than his. Maybe too good. When he was finished and it was Akila’s turn to talk he watched her closely, looking for signs that that her whole simple Army girl routine was just an act, but he couldn’t see any. She certainly seemed sincere. He found himself thinking that if she was acting she was darn good at it, because he couldn’t tell. She seemed to be just what she claimed.

There was some hooting when she told them his story about losing his virginity to an older woman, but they all seemed to buy it, except maybe Jenna, who gave him a calculating look. Caleb actually got up and fist-bumped him. He didn’t seem all that drunk, considering how much Nate had seen him drink.

Next to go were Caleb and the blonde.

“I’m Tamara and I’m here to tell you about Caleb. Caleb is from Australia,” the blonde said, “except he keeps calling it Oz.” She squinted at her notes. “Some place called Cairns, near the rain forest, where he says they have salt water crocodiles that will swim miles up fresh water rivers and eat you when you’re sleeping by the river.” She put her hand to her heart and gave Caleb a look as if he’d said he could walk on water. “He was raised in the bush by his dad, who owned a pub – that’s what they call a bar there – and on the shelf behind the bar instead of the good liquor they had jars with poisonous spiders and snakes and stuff in them, all pickled in alcohol. His dad would give a free drink to anyone who could bring in something unusual that he didn’t already have. Caleb’s life’s goal is to get drunk on every continent.”

Caleb howled when she said it and held his beer up. “Nothing like getting pissed!” he said. “That’s getting drunk for you Yanks who’ve never been anywhere.”

“His big secret is…” She paused, letting the suspense build. She was wearing a lot of makeup. The top she was wearing was very tight and revealed a generous amount of cleavage. It looked to Nate like she’d sprinkled glitter between her breasts. There was a tattoo of a snake’s head just visible between her breasts. “He’s never had sex with an American girl.”

There was a fair amount of groaning at this and Tamara reddened slightly when Caleb put his hand on her knee. “My turn,” he said.

“This lovely sheila next to me is named Tamara. She’s from some place called Tucson in a state called Arizona, which I don’t think is a real place.” He cried out in mock dismay when she smacked him playfully. “She says there’s nothing in Tucson but a lot of cactus and heat and she doesn’t like talking about it.” When she hit him again, he said, “Hey! I’m just repeating what you said. It’s right here on paper.” He took another drink of his beer, peered at his clipboard, then tossed it on the table. “Her hobby is dancing around to Justin Bieber songs in her panties and nothing else.” Laughter greeted his words. “That’s about it, except for her secret.” He leaned forward, putting his thick forearms on his knees and lowering his voice. “She wants to do it with three guys on camera.” He held up one hand, palm out. “Fair dinkum.”

“What? You’re a monster! I never said that!” She slapped him several times, but it was mock outrage; that much was clear to everyone. “I hate you. Why would you say that?” She turned to the Latino man, who was sitting on her left. “Are you just going to let him get away with that? Aren’t you supposed to defend my honor or something?”

He set down his glass. There was a tattoo of barbed wire around his wrist, just visible when his shirt sleeve pulled back as he reached forward. He gave Caleb a cold, hard look. “Now you’ve made an enemy of the wrong man, pendejo. I will gut you.” The way he said it sounded utterly real and for just a moment Nate believed he was serious. Then he smiled and added in a thick Spanish accent, “I challenge you to a duel at dawn. For the lady’s honor. You will, of course, lose.”

Everyone laughed, but there was as much relief as anything in the laughter.

“The beautiful senorita beside me is Jordynn,” he said, his voice very silky and smooth, holding out his hand to the African American woman on his left. He stared at her, his hand held out to her, until she took his hand, then he looked back at the rest of them. “She is from Miami, where they have the most beautiful women in the world.” She brought her other hand to her face. “She grew up wanting to be a princess and that is what she became.” Her hand tightened on his and her mouth opened slightly. Her eyes were glowing. “She has no hobbies because princesses do not need them. Her secret is that one day all men will fall at her feet and worship her beauty.” Now she was blushing. Nate felt like gagging but he had to admit he was impressed with the man’s delivery. He was definitely slick.

“This silver-tongued fool is Santiago,” Jordynn said, pulling her hand away from his with reluctance. She was wearing a red tube top and she twitched it up slightly. One hand went to her hair. There were streaks of red in it and it fell down past her shoulders. She really was a very striking woman, Nate thought.

“He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, to a virgin on Christmas Eve.” There were several groans at this. “When he was born the doctor held him up and said, ‘This man will strike fear in the hearts of men and lust in the hearts of women everywhere.’” She looked at Santiago. “God’s gift, aren’t you?”

He winked and inclined his head. “It is my curse,” he said softly.

“Chihuahua was too small for him so when he was twelve he left his family and immigrated to the United States. The whole city went into mourning when he left.” She looked up from the clipboard. “Sickening, isn’t it?” There was a chorus of agreement and she continued, “His hobby is helping little old ladies across the street. He says he has no secrets, that his life is an open book, but that when he was a boy an old bruja, a witch, told him a giant snake would devour him when the world ended.”

These people were better than he thought, Nate realized. They’d anticipated questions like this and they’d put some time into it. They knew this was all bullshit and they embraced it. Maybe this wasn’t so different from real acting after all. Both of them were based on the audience willingly suspending disbelief and temporarily accepting whatever premise the actor put forth. He looked around him, wondering what, if anything, he heard today would be the truth.

Then it was Jenna’s turn. “This is Maha. His name means wild cow in Thai. His mother is Thai and his father is an American. They met in Bangkok. He was born in Santa Barbara, California, but his parents split up when he was ten and he spent the rest of his childhood in Bangkok. He came to the US to go to college at Ohio State and when he was done he moved to LA. He’s a Buddhist, an actual Zen Buddhist. His hobby is meditating.” Caleb faked an exaggerated yawn and Jenna gave him a cold look. “His secret is that he has a lot of bad karma from his last life, when he was a gangster in Thailand.”

No way, Nate thought. That stuff had to be made up. But then he looked closer at Maha and wondered. It sure looked as though Maha believed it.

Maha spoke next. His voice was very even, very calm. He did not rush his words, but seemed to take his time choosing each one. “Jenna’s grandmother emigrated from Russia. No, that is not the right word. She escaped from Russia in the 1960s. Her husband refused to come with her, so she took her baby daughter and did it alone. Somehow she made it into Finland and then to the US. She is still alive. Jenna says she is too tough to die. Jenna grew up in Chicago and her mother and grandmother still live there. Her hobby is exercise and taking care of herself. Her secret is that she is going to win this contest.”

There was a lot of hooting at his last words, but Nate didn’t join in. Jenna struck him as very capable, the kind of person who, once she put her mind to something, didn’t give up until she’d done it.

Tony looked at his partner. “I guess that just leaves us. My beautiful partner here is Omisha Malik.” Omisha gave him a timid smile then cast her eyes back down, unable to look at the rest of them. “Omisha is the goddess of birth and death. She is from India, from the city of Kolkata, which we usually call Calcutta. She came to the US to study at UCLA and just received her BA in history this spring. After this show she will be returning to India to marry the man her parents have arranged for her, a dentist who lives in Calcutta.”

There were some groans at this and Caleb said, “No way, an arranged marriage? Does that still happen?”

“It is not like you think,” Omisha said. “He is a good man from a good family. It is a suitable match for both of us.”

“Girl, you should make your own choices,” Jordynn said.

Tony continued. “Her hobby is painting. She likes to do landscapes. Her secret is that when she was a little girl she dreamed of being a famous actress, dancing in the famous Bollywood movies.”

“I love the dancing in those,” Jenna said. “So graceful. So beautiful.”

Then it was Omisha’s turn. In her measured, cultured accent she told them about Tony growing up in Kansas, working at his father’s store on the evenings and weekends, how he spent a semester at Kansas State before moving to LA. “His hobby is standup comedy,” she said. “He goes in for open mic night every week at a bar near his apartment. His secret is that he says he is no good at it, that he is maybe the worst comedian ever.”

“Technically it’s not really a secret. The four people who are always there getting drunk know I suck. The bartender does too,” Tony said.

Chapter Six

When the movie he was watching ended, Nate looked out the window and was surprised to see ocean below. He got up to stretch his legs and walked to the back of the jet. The two flight attendants were in the galley, talking about something in hushed tones. They broke off when he walked in and for just a moment before she got her professional smile in place, Kelly had fear in her eyes. Adam turned away, fussing with the coffee pot.

“Can I help you?” Kelly asked brightly, brushing stray hair back from her face.

“We’re not landing in Florida are we?” he asked. She shook her head. “Don’t we need to refuel?”

“We will be refueling in the Bahamas,” she replied.

“That seems odd.”

“It’s not what I expected either. I’m sure someone, somewhere has their reasons.”

Nate got a bottle of water and went back to his seat. About half an hour later the jet began to descend. Out his window Nate could see the island getting closer. Oddly, he couldn’t see any towns or cities, though he walked to the other side of the jet and looked out one of those windows too. A few minutes later they put down on a landing strip in the middle of nowhere.

“This is weird,” Nate said to Tony. “Why are we stopping here?”

Tony had just awakened from a nap and he looked around groggily. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere in the Bahamas.” Kelly came by and Nate waved her over. “Can we get off and stretch our legs?”

“Let me check with the pilot.” She returned a minute later and announced to the passengers that they could get off the jet if they wanted to, but that they shouldn’t go anywhere as they would be taking off again in just a few minutes. While she was speaking Adam opened the door and hit the button to lower the stairs.

A few of the contestants got off the jet. “I don’t think she had to warn us not to go anywhere,” Tony said, looking around. “There’s nowhere to go.” It was true. The air field was surrounded by palm trees. There was a dirt road leading to it and a single, rusted tin shack with some fuel tanks sitting by it. There weren’t any other planes. The sun was setting.

Nate checked his phone. No signal, but that wasn’t too surprising.

“What are we doing here?” Tamara asked. She’d been drinking pretty steadily with Caleb and she was weaving visibly. She took a cigarette out of her purse and lit it. “We’re not there already, are we?”

“Really?” Jordynn said sarcastically. “You think we can just fly from California to Africa in seven hours?”

Tamara gave her a dirty look. “Hey, how am I supposed to know how far it is? I’ve never even been out of the country.”

“You could try looking at a map. Madagascar is on the other side of the world from California.”

Tamara waved her off. Her fingernails were very long and very red. “Who cares where Madagascar is?”

“You’re going to be spending two months there,” Jenna put in. “Didn’t you even Google the place?”

“I’ve been busy,” Tamara said. “It’s boring out here. I’m getting back on the plane.” When she turned to head back to the plane she stumbled on her spike heels and fell against Santiago. He caught her gracefully and she hung onto him for a few seconds longer than she needed to.

“Thank you,” she said, a little breathlessly it seemed to Nate.

“It is always my pleasure,” he said graciously. After he let her go she stayed standing beside him. Nate thought he caught the hint of a frown on Jordynn’s face but it was quickly gone.

Jenna rolled her eyes and walked over to Maha, who had gone to the edge of the air field and was looking into the trees.

“Maybe we landed here because of the terrorist attack,” Nate suggested.

“You are getting too worked up about the terrorist thing,” Santiago said. “It is nothing. Look around. We’re on an island. Primitive facilities. They’re just getting us in the mind set for the show. Don’t read too much into it.”

“So you think they’re doing this on purpose?” Caleb asked.

“It’s a possibility. Reality TV is, after all, about putting people in abnormal situations and watching to see how they will react.”

“Or maybe the terrorist attack wasn’t as contained as they thought. Maybe the Miami airport was closed off and we had to come here instead.” They all turned to look at Jordynn who quickly grew nervous at having them all stare at her. “I’m not saying it is,” she said defensively, “just that it could be.”

“But if that was true then they would have sent us back to LA, wouldn’t they?” Tamara asked, her eyes growing very big. “I heard that’s what they did on 9/11. They made all the planes turn around and go back to where they took off from.”

“There’s your proof this has nothing to do with the attempted terrorist attack,” Santiago said. “They didn’t make us turn around and return to LA.”

“Or…” Nate said. He hesitated and they all looked at him. “Or the producers of this show really want to start filming tomorrow, no matter what happens.”

“That’s loco,” Santiago said. “They wouldn’t ignore Homeland Security. That’s illegal.”

“If there’s enough money on the line they might,” Tony said. “It depends on their investors. It depends on whatever contracts they have with whatever station is going to carry the show. We don’t know what delays they’ve already experienced. If the deadline is tight enough, the sums of money large enough, a corporation might be tempted to bend the rules.”

They all thought about this for a minute. Nate spoke next. “People shoot each other over a pair of shoes. They’ll do a lot for millions of dollars.” He gestured at all of them. “Look at us here, now. Look at what we’re willing to do for the chance to win a million dollars.”

“Don’t forget the fame, mate,” Caleb said with mock seriousness. “And the chicks.” Tamara let out a cry of false dismay and slapped him on the arm. Caleb gave her a big grin.

“I think you are becoming excited over nothing,” Santiago said. “We’re just refueling, that’s all. Nothing’s happened. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Chapter Seven

They took off a few minutes later. After dinner Nate reclined his chair and watched an old Charlton Heston movie called The Omega Man while the attendants brought around blankets, pillows and soft booties. During the movie he noticed that while the others were spending their time watching movies, or reading, or talking, that Maha was sitting cross-legged on one of the couches with his eyes closed. Shortly after the movie ended he saw that Maha was done and he went over. “Do you mind if I sit here?”

Maha gave a soft smile and brought his hands up to mouth level and pressed his palms together while inclining his head slightly. “It would be my pleasure.”

“Have you been meditating long?” Nate asked him.

“Since I was a boy.”

“Does it help?”

“It calms me, helps me stay centered.”

“If you don’t mind me saying this, I…” He hesitated. “I should shut up. I’ve already dug a couple of holes today.”

“Please continue.” Maha looked sincerely interested in what Nate had to say.

“What in the world are you doing here? Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t belong here at all. How do Buddhism and reality TV go together?”

Maha smiled. “I suppose it does seem odd.” He was silent for a moment. “I was born in the United States, but I have spent much of my life in Thailand. I know both worlds, and yet I belong in neither.”

Nate waited for him to say more, but after a while it was clear that Maha felt he had explained it sufficiently. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I was lost in Thailand, so I returned to the place of my birth, hoping to find answers there.” Maha shrugged. “Answers have not been so easy to come by.”

“And you thought you’d find answers on a reality show?”

Maha shrugged again. “How can I know unless I look? I was walking down the street and saw many people waiting in line. I followed a feeling and stood in line also. I found the others in line very interesting. Then I was chosen and here I am. The universe works in unfathomable ways.”

Nate laughed. “All those people who wanted so bad to be on this show and you walk up out of the blue and land a spot. You’re right. The universe is hard to understand.” Maha smiled and nodded. “That stuff Jenna said earlier, about how you believe you were a gangster in your last life and you have a karma debt to pay. Do you really believe that, or was it just something you told her for the cameras?”

“Absolutely I believe it.”

Nate wanted to scoff at him. It all seemed so ridiculous on the face of it. People who believed in past lives, especially people who claimed to know about their past lives, were idiots or crazy. Yet there was something so open and sincere about Maha that he couldn’t quite bring himself to dismiss him out of hand. “How do you know? Is that something you learned in meditation?”

“A holy man told me.”

“A holy man.” Now it was Nate’s turn to shrug. “Okay. I can accept that. So you were a gangster in your past life and now you have all this bad karma you have to atone for. How?”

“I do not know. But I follow the eightfold path of the Buddha as best I can and trust it will be revealed to me.”

♦          ♦          ♦          ♦

Nate went back to his seat. Tony leaned over.

“That’s one very strange guy,” Tony said.

“He’s not like anyone I have ever met.”

“Do you believe him?”

“If by believe you mean do I think it’s true, the past life and all? I don’t think so. That’s pretty farfetched. But if you’re asking me if I think he sincerely believes what he is saying, then yes, I do.”

“I don’t know,” Tony said skeptically.

“I think I haven’t met very many sincere people in my life,” Nate said. “Especially in LA, it seems like everyone is trying to sell a better mask. Nobody believes anything beyond the level to which they can convince you to believe it.”

“That’s a pretty deep statement from someone who has dedicated himself to pretending to be someone else.”

Nate thought about that for a moment. At first he felt kind of insulted by Tony’s statement, but then it occurred to him in a different way. “You know what? I don’t know if I’ve ever been sincere a single minute in my entire life. I mean, when I’m being me, not playing a role. Not a single minute.”

“That sounds kind of harsh.”

“I think the closest I get to being truly sincere is when I’m playing a role. Does that make any sense?”

“Not really.”

“When I get into a role, I get into the role. I don’t just play someone else, I sincerely become someone else. When I’m really working it, when I’ve really let go of myself and gotten into a role, I feel more – I don’t know – more real than I do at any other time. There are those magical moments when I feel as if I really am that person I am portraying, not Nate Devereaux. Like Nate Devereaux is the role I’m playing.”

“Geez,” Tony said. “That’s pretty intense.”

“Yeah,” Nate said, surprised at himself. “I can’t believe I just told you that. I don’t think I’ve ever really even thought of it that way before.”

“You think the cameras picked it up?”

Nate looked around. “God, I hope not.”

Tony’s next question surprised Nate. “So how are you going to play this role? I mean, how do you play a character when the character you’re playing is yourself?”

Chapter Eight

Africa passed beneath them the next day while the contestants watched movies, talked, drank and napped. Now that they were getting close to the island it seemed that everyone was feeling their nerves a little. Even Caleb was subdued.

Finally, about the middle of the afternoon, Nate woke up from a nap and looked out his window to discover that they were once again flying over the ocean. Surely that meant they couldn’t have too much further to fly. He motioned Kelly over and ordered an espresso.

Kelly went into the galley. From where he was sitting, Nate could see the light on the phone that hung on the wall of the galley begin to blink. Kelly stopped and picked it up. She listened closely, her face growing worried. She hung up the phone as the plane began to bank to the right. Suddenly the pilot’s voice came over the speaker.

“This is your captain speaking. Can I have your attention, please?”

An unmistakable tension in the man’s tone cut through Nate’s sleepiness and he sat up, suddenly alert. Others in the cabin did the same. Tony was fast asleep and Nate leaned over and shook him awake. “I think you want to hear this,” he said.

Tony sat up, rubbing his eyes and looking around as if he’d forgotten where he was. The plane had now turned completely around. “What is it? What’s going on?

“We will not be landing in Mahajanga,” the pilot said. “The airport there is closed. We are rerouting back to the mainland.” The speaker cut off.

“What’s wrong?” Tamara cried. “Why is the airport closed?”

“The Republic of Madagascar has closed its airports,” Kelly said. Her face was pale. She was still holding a towel from the galley and she twisted it in her hands as she spoke. “We’re going to have to try and land in Mozambique.”

“Why?” Nate demanded.

Kelly exchanged a look with Adam then looked back at the passengers. “It’s the…the terrorist attack,” she said. “It’s worse than we thought.”

“But the captain said – ”

“You said you’d tell us if there was anything else we needed to know.”

“I know. But until a few minutes ago Madagascar was still allowing planes to land at its airports. The captain felt there was no need to disturb – ”

“That’s bullshit!” Tamara exploded. “He should have told us.”

“Listen. Everyone just calm down,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be all right.”

“You keep saying that,” Tony said. “But that doesn’t make it so.”

“Just tell us what happened,” Jenna said.

“Get the captain out here,” Santiago demanded. “I want to hear this from him.”

“Please, sir, the captain is busy flying the plane.” She took a deep breath and made a visible effort to control herself. Adam came out of the galley then, his face ashen.

“The guy they caught in Chicago wasn’t the only one,” Adam said. “There were dozens of them in major airports all over the world. They released some kind of biological agent, infecting travelers in the airports. Those travelers then spread out all over the world. The first wave of illnesses was reported about eight hours ago, the first deaths about four hours ago. Most nations have closed their airports to stop the spread of the disease.” He looked like he was going to be sick. “It’s too late. It’s already spread too far.”

“Adam!” Kelly said sharply. “You don’t know that. You’re scaring them.”

“So what? I’m scared. I don’t give a shit if they’re scared.”

“Shut up! You’re making it worse.”

“People are dying by the thousands and I’m making it worse? Really?”

The cabin erupted in a furor. Everyone started talking at once. Kelly tried to shout over them, to get them calm, but everyone ignored her. Finally she went to the phone, picked it up and talked into it. A moment later the door of the cockpit opened and the captain emerged.

“Everyone shut up!” he yelled.

They fell silent and looked at him.

“Our first priority is getting this plane safely on the ground. In order to do that, I need to be in the cockpit helping fly this plane, not back here babysitting you. Is that clear?”

A few of them nodded. None spoke.

“That’s better,” he said, and went back into the cockpit.

“No fucking way,” Caleb said.

Tamara was shaking her head. “This can’t be happening. It can’t. I don’t believe it.”

Adam disappeared back into the galley. After a moment Kelly followed him. The door to the galley closed. Nate walked to the door and listened. Kelly hadn’t shut the door completely and through the crack he could see the two of them talking.

“Mozambique’s not going to allow us to land either,” Adam said.

“You don’t know that,” she replied.

“I do know it and so do you if you would stop deluding yourself.”

“I’m not deluding myself, I’m being professional. Which is what you should be doing.”

“Stop it!” Adam snapped, his voice rising. “Just give up the calm professional bullshit. We’re all fucked and you know it.”

“You don’t know that. Not for sure. Even if it’s true, those people need us to be calm. They need us to tell them they’re going to live through this.”

“I’m not going to lie to them!”

“Keep your voice down. They’ll hear.”

“So what? Why should I care if they hear or not?” He was practically yelling.

“Get a hold of yourself and do your job.”

“I don’t give a shit about the job. In case you didn’t hear, the world is coming to an end. I’m pretty sure that means this job is coming to an end as well.”

“You’re overreacting. The world is not coming to an end.”

“Didn’t you listen to the reports? The virus is spreading out of control.”

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it’s like the captain said: our first priority is to get this plane safely on the ground. Having hysterical passengers won’t help that.”

“Where do you think we’re going to land? In a tree?”

“We’ll find somewhere.”

“We’ve got less than a half hour of fuel left. There’s nowhere else to go.”

At that moment Kelly looked over, saw Nate watching, and bit back on what she’d been about to say.

He pushed the door open the rest of the way. “Is it true? Only a half hour of fuel?” he asked.

“Maybe a little more,” she admitted. “But I’m confident the captain will put us down safely.” She shot a glance at Adam. “Even if we have to land in a tree.” She moved toward Nate and began shooing him out of the galley. “Please return to your seat, Mr. Devereaux. Buckle yourself in and remain calm.”

Nate allowed her to usher him back to his seat. It flashed into his mind that this couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be real. Death was something that happened to other people, not him. Was he really going to die here, now? It didn’t seem possible. All his struggling, all his striving, all his planning. The one thing he had never planned for, never quite believed was possible, was that he would just simply die. Everything he’d dreamed of, gone in an instant.

The captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker.

“I’ve radioed the airport at Mtwara, in Tanzania. They are going to let us land.”

A sigh of relief passed through the cabin. Caleb called, “Stewardess! Another beer!” There were a few tentative smiles. Nate sat back in his seat with a silent prayer.

♦          ♦          ♦          ♦

Outside Nate’s window the coast of east Africa passed. White sand beaches. Thick, lush vegetation crouched around the edge. It looked beautiful, relaxing. Probably it wasn’t going to be all that bad, he told himself. Some people would die, but the authorities would get it under control. They’d find an antidote or they’d quarantine off the infected areas. The virus would run its course. He should be thankful he was here, rather than in LA. LA would probably be complete madness for a while. It was remote here, the ass-end of the world. Nobody flew to Tanzania; they probably wouldn’t be infected at all. He and the rest of the contestants would spend a few months in some tropical city, sitting in the shade drinking coconut milk or something, and when things settled down they would fly home on this same jet.

Tony leaned over to whisper to Nate. “I don’t think we’re going to make it to Tanzania.”

“But the captain said – ”

“Be real. He just said that so we wouldn’t freak out. Just like he didn’t tell us about the virus to keep us from freaking out. I spent some time researching Madagascar before I left home, looking at maps and stuff. We can’t make it to Tanzania in a half hour. Why do you think we’re flying so low? He’s looking for somewhere to land.”

“But it’s nothing but trees down there.”

“Yeah. No shit.”

“Do you know where we are now?”

“As best I can tell, we should be over Mwinda.”

“Mwinda? But isn’t that the country where it’s basically anarchy?”

“Pretty much. They’ve had a civil war going on for about twenty years. The place is a serious mess. We should hope we have enough fuel to at least get over Tanzania before we have to put down.”

Tony sat back in his seat and Nate looked out the window. He could see the blue expanse of the ocean off to the right and the white strip of the beach.

“Maybe we could land on the beach,” Nate said.

“That won’t work,” Tony replied. “Sand’s too soft. The wheels will dig in and the plane will flip.”

“The ocean?”

“That’s probably why we’re staying along the coast. If he doesn’t find anywhere to land he can always put down in the ocean.”

Jordynn had been listening in. “I can’t swim,” she said.

“You don’t have to,” Santiago told her. “They have life jackets on airplanes.”

“I wish I never would have gotten this role,” Jordynn said, wrapping her arms around herself.

“Would you rather be back in LA?” Santiago replied. “Where people are panicking, probably rioting like idiots always do when things go wrong. If we survive the crash, this is the best place to be. There’s no way the virus will spread out here to the middle of nowhere. All we have to do is wait it out. They’re probably overreacting anyway, like they did after 9/11. It’s probably anthrax or something. You will see. We’ll spend a couple weeks in some nameless town and then they’ll open up the airports and everything will go back to normal.”

Nate listened to Santiago. The man sounded so calm and rational. He wanted to believe him. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths, knowing he was breathing too fast. He looked over and saw Omisha. The Indian woman was rigid in her seat, her grip on the armrests so fierce her knuckles were white. A tear was running down her cheek.

“Hey,” he said. She turned toward him. “It’s going to be all right. You’ll see.” He didn’t really believe his own words, but the sight of her made him want to do something to help her. “The pilot’s ex-military.” He didn’t really know that for sure, but he’d read somewhere that most commercial pilots got their start in the military. “They practice this kind of thing. He’ll get us down okay.”

She nodded stiffly and tried to sit back a little in her seat. It might have been his imagination, but he thought maybe she’d relaxed just a little.

The minutes ticked by and no airport or even town appeared. Nate wanted to scream. It wasn’t possible. The world was full of people. How could this part of it be so empty?

All at once the engines cut out, the familiar, reassuring background roar suddenly gone.

♦          ♦          ♦          ♦

The jet lurched and started to lose altitude. Someone screamed. Nate heard someone saying “Ohshit ohshit ohshit” over and over again. The ground was coming up fast.

Then, blessed miracle, the engines came back on and the jet leveled out. Some of the weight on Nate’s heart eased and he could breathe again.

Kelly came through the cabin handing out inflatable life jackets. “Put these on. We may have to land in the water.” Caleb was closest to the exit and she showed him the emergency exit bar and the button to deploy the inflatable slide. Nate thought of all the times he’d sat through the flight attendant lectures on what to do in the event of a crash and paid no attention.

He found himself thinking about his mother. How long had it been since he’d talked to her? They’d never been close. She was always too engrossed in her art to pay much attention to the needs of a child. He’d left as soon as he could and never looked back, telling himself it didn’t matter anyway, that he preferred to be free of all the entanglements and drama that so many of his friends dealt with when it came to their families. Now he wondered if it had all been a mistake.

The engines cut out again. Someone was sobbing loudly. Santiago was cursing in Spanish. Nate knew he was hyperventilating but he couldn’t seem to help himself. The ground got closer. They flashed over a river. The jet began banking right as the pilot steered it toward the ocean.

The engines came back on and Nate nearly cried with relief. The plane gained precious altitude.

Then he heard someone yelling. “Over there! I see something! I think it’s a runway!” Everyone tried to look. Nate was fumbling with his seat belt when Kelly came on the intercom.

“Remain in your seats! Please!”

The jet banked to the left. A ragged cheer went up from the passengers. Nate tried to swallow but his mouth was too dry. He heard a woman praying in a language he didn’t recognize and looked over to see Omisha, her hands clasped before her, tears streaming down her face.

The jet bucked as the engines cut out again. They sputtered once and went dead for good. The jet began to dive.

Nate looked out his window, hoping they were over the airfield. The ground was getting very close, very fast, the trees flashing by in a blur. He gripped the armrests, trying to prepare himself for the impact. Would he die immediately, a sudden burst of pain and then nothing? Or would he lie broken and burned in the jungle and scream out his last moments?

At the end, the cabin became strangely quiet, the screams and sobbing and praying seeming to pause. It was so quiet Nate could hear the landing gear going down.

Thumping and cracking from below as they began to strike the tops of the tallest trees. Any second now. Nate braced himself.

The snapping of tree limbs stopped abruptly and a split second later there was impact. The jet struck the ground with bone-jarring force, bounced into the air, then struck again. It started to slide sideways, then the pilot straightened it out. There was a crash off to the right. The jet jerked that way…

And then it stopped.

“Oh my god,” someone said.

“Is everyone okay?” someone else asked. “Is anyone hurt?”

All of a sudden Nate wanted nothing more than to get off the jet as fast as he could. It took him several tries before he could work the catch on his seat belt, his hands were shaking so badly. He stood up and almost fell right back down, he was so dizzy from hyperventilating. He had a vague impression of others around him getting out of their seats also.

Before he could reach the door, Caleb had opened it and punched the button for the inflatable slide, which popped out with a hiss of released carbon dioxide. The big man jumped on the slide and disappeared from sight. Kelly was yelling something but no one paid any attention to her as they surged after Caleb. Nate wasn’t all the way off the slide when someone crashed into him from behind. He stumbled and fell in the dirt and just stayed there on his hands and knees, waiting for the shaking to pass, utterly relieved to be back on the ground.

Slowly he became aware of the others around him. Tony was lying flat on his back making a sound that could have been crying and could have been laughing but was neither. Jordynn was on her knees, eyes closed, tears streaming down her face. Caleb was kind of staggering around, rubbing his arms. Omisha was standing there, staring blankly at nothing, shivering. Tamara was weeping loudly. Santiago alone seemed unmoved. He stood there with his arms crossed, looking at them with disgust.

After a minute Nate got the shaking under control and he stood up and looked around. They were on a narrow dirt strip carved out of the thick trees. The trees were huge and dense. The sun was setting. The jet sat at an angle at the far edge of the runway, pressed back into the trees and tilted slightly. One of the tires was flat.

Jordynn stood up. She grabbed hold of Santiago’s arm. “I thought we were going to die.”

He ignored her, his attention on something off to the side. Nate turned to look.

♦          ♦          ♦          ♦

On the opposite side of the runway was a warehouse. The sole window was dark. On the roof were a satellite dish, an antenna and two rows of solar panels. On one end of the warehouse were a large propane tank and another metal tank. At the other end was what looked like a water tank.

Tony stood up. “What’s that doing here?” he asked.

“I think I hear a car,” Jenna said. She looked a lot calmer than Nate felt. She was standing next to Maha, who looked thoughtful, as if he’d just been through an interesting experience, rather than a terrifying one.

At the far end of the runway was a dirt road. The thick trees hid whatever was approaching but the sound of the engine was getting louder.

“Help is coming,” Tamara said. She wiped at her tears, patted her hair into place and straightened the short skirt she was wearing.

A minute later a beat up Toyota pickup appeared, two men visible in the cab. The Toyota slid to a halt in a cloud of dust at the far end of the airfield. As the dust settled, Nate noticed something in the bed of the truck. An alarm went off in his head. “Is that a…?”

Chapter Nine

“That’s a machine gun,” Caleb said. Nate began backing away. This wasn’t right at all.

The men jumped out of the truck, shouting something angrily in a foreign language and gesturing at them.

“What are they saying?” Tamara asked, moving in close to Caleb.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,” Jenna said. They were all backing up now, except for Santiago, who stood facing the men with his arms hanging at his sides. He looked somehow like a man preparing for a gunfight.

Then one of the men pulled a pistol from a holster and raised it. The other one followed and they began shooting.

“They’re shooting at us!” Jordynn cried.

Pandemonium broke out. Some of the contestants simply froze. Others ran toward the jet or simply away from the gunfire. Over the sound of the gunfire came Akila’s voice, yelling, “Over here! Come on!”

Akila had reached the warehouse and was standing in the open doorway, waving to them. Nate started to run, saw Omisha standing there motionless still, and grabbed her arm. Bullets spattered around them. “Come on!”

At first Omisha just stared at him as if she had no idea who he was. Then Nate began to drag her and suddenly she came to life and started to run.

They reached the shelter of the warehouse and ran inside. Akila slammed and locked the door while the rest stared at each other in stunned disbelief.

“Why did they do that?” Jordynn asked in a small voice. “What’s going on?”

No one answered. What was there to say? What had started as a normal enough day, filled with anticipation and excitement, had turned into a nightmare.

Akila went to the small window and looked out. “They’re leaving.”

Others crowded around the window. The men seemed to be arguing as they went back to the pickup and got in. The vehicle sprayed dirt as it spun in a tight circle and headed back the way it came.

“Somebody doesn’t want us here,” Akila said quietly.

“No shit,” Tony said.

“Are they going to come back?” Tamara asked. She had a tight grip on Caleb’s arm.

“What do you think?” Akila said. There were a couple of light switches by the door and she turned them on. Rows of overhead fluorescent lights buzzed and came to life.

One end of the warehouse was mostly filled with stacks of boxes and crates on wooden pallets. Along one wall was a row of cabinets and metal lockers. The other end of the warehouse had been framed in and walled off. There was a door in the center of the wall.

“What the hell?” Caleb asked.

Akila walked over to the nearest crate, which was sitting on the floor, its lid partway off. She pushed the lid back and looked in. “I think I know why they were shooting at us.”

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